Blog Psychology Pt 2: Our Memories Are Basically Crap

Let’s accept at face value that sponsored bloggers are lovely human beings who are kind to animals, pay their taxes and generate warm and fuzzy feelings in all who know them. Let’s further state that they would never consciously tell a lie as it would be too painful for words.

Does this mean that their claims of how they used to feel about something are true? That when they say that this is a product/company they have always valued, that this is in fact the case?

Well … no. Not necessarily.

Our memories, as it turns out, are not so much indelible recordings of events and feelings as they occurred, but piecemeal representations of bits and flashes with emotional import, endlessly recreated when called on in the future, subject to infinite reinterpretation and–yes–alteration with time.

Some experiments to demonstrate:

On the day of September 11, research psychologists in New York distributed a questionnaire to people in the City and surrounding regions, asking them to write down what they remembered about the terrorist attacks. Approximately 1,500 were completed and returned. Periodically afterwards, these same respondents were asked to recall those events. While overall recall was good, particularly on the important points (Sept 11, New York City, terrorists, WTC), accuracy was only about 80%. Which is pretty good, yes, but tellingly, the parts of memories that altered most were how people remembered feeling on that day.

Other experiments were conducted at the same time, contrasting people’s accuracy in their memories for the 911 attacks with other, mundane memories from the same day (what they had for breakfast, say), and what they found was fascinating: while memories deteriorated at about the same rate, people’s feelings about the accuracy of those memories was quite skewed: respondents believed that their more emotional 911 memories were more accurate than their mundane memories. But they weren’t.

Forty percent of the time people misremember some aspect of their 9/11 experience, the study indicates. And the part they get the most wrong is how they felt.

“You tend to project your current feelings about 9/11 on what you felt then,” explains Hirst. “You see this in other aspects of daily life. For instance, if we ask college students how they feel about a boyfriend or girlfriend now, everything’s good. But if you ask them about the person after they break up, they’ll say they knew he or she was bad for them. Our emotions change over time, and it’s hard to get back in that initial emotional space.”

I remember having read somewhere that when participants in a 911 memory experiment involving journalling were shown the memories they recorded at the times of the events, some of them became quite angry, as it conflicted with their current memories about what happened and they accused the researchers of having plagiarized them. However, I haven’t been able to find this reference, and in a post about memory being fallible it would be a little suspect for me to ask you to take my word for it. So you can do with that anecdote what you’d like.

But basically, while emotions help us to remember details (particularly of traumatic events), our memories of the emotions themselves are highly subject to alteration over time.

(I always think of this research when a friend or acquaintance tells me, in the wake of a separation or divorce, that “I never really loved him/her.” They probably did, and now just don’t remember.)

So this paid spokesperson. This sponsored blogger you know and love–or maybe distrust, because their opinions seem to be a little too in sync with whatever company is currently paying their webhosting bill.

They may truly believe it when they tell you how much they have always loved Product X or Service Y, and how thrilled they are to help promote Company A or Cause B as always having been near and dear to their hearts. Their integrity may be perfectly sound and their honesty and trustworthiness unimpeachible.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are right.

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10 thoughts on “Blog Psychology Pt 2: Our Memories Are Basically Crap”

  1. Very true. I remember feeling mostly horror and confusion on the day. Grief came a bit later. The day itself was perfect. Not a cloud in the sky. I live near an airport and the sky is NEVER empty of clouds (from contrails), and when we were sent home from work, the sky was empty. Just…empty.

    On the topic of sponsored posts: I have never done a sponsored post, but I’d be willing to do one for Thermos and Josef Siebel. If they’d pay me in Thermoses and shoes/sandals. ‘Cause damn those things are expensive.

    1. Would you believe that I wrote this post in August and just set it to post an indeterminate Thursday in the future? What a goof I am. It didn’t even occur to me to check the date to make sure it wouldn’t post actually on September 11.

      I hope this doesn’t offend anyone. If it does, I sincerely apologize.

      I too could probably be persuaded for a nice coverstitch machine. So there you go, internet marketers. The price of my integrity is apparently an easy knit seam.

  2. Oh yes, definitely – it seems surprising at first, but it’s so true! I was once on a jury, and was gobsmacked to hear several witnesses give statements about their recollection of events that were identical – to me this was a sure sign that they weren’t stating what they remembered, but instead were repeating an agreed and rehearsed piece. The majority of the other jurors on my panel thought it was sign the witnesses were telling the truth though :).

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